Follow This Advice from a Decluttering Pro If You’re Nervous About Tossing Something

published Jan 14, 2023
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A woman sitting on the floor, putting clothes into a cardboard box for donation
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Traditional decluttering wisdom dictates that you have four options when undertaking an out-with-the-old project: to keep, donate, sell, or trash. But the process of downsizing is so much more emotional than that. No, it’s not practical to save everything that’s ever belonged to you, your children, or your late loved ones. But items like birthday cards, shabby stuffed animals, or photographs provide a tangible attachment to the times in our lives that you want to remember.

What gets tossed, what do you keep, and how do you know if those antiques are actually worth something? Sometimes, a massive haul to a secondhand shop or the dumpster lifts a weight off your shoulders. And other times, a hasty purge can lead to regret if you discard items of high monetary, sentimental, or practical value. And the culture of “consume, discard, and repeat” is not a sustainable practice for the health of our planet. 

Shara Kay, a Certified Professional Organizer and board member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing (NAPO) Los Angeles chapter, walked me through her process on how to go about downsizing more thoughtfully. She broke down the five instances when you should hold off on kicking your stuff to curb, and how to take a more sustainable approach to decluttering your space. Read on to learn how to get rid of clutter without holding on to regret.

Credit: Erin Derby

Know the actual worth of so-called collectibles.

If you’ve found yourself in the sensitive position to re-home an entire lifetime’s worth of items from an aging or deceased relative’s estate, you may come across high-value items like fine china, artwork, antiques, jewelry, or collectibles. A professional appraiser can evaluate the items for a fee and suggest an outlet to re-sell, if you’d rather not keep them for yourself. However, Shara says that a free and easy way to begin research on an item’s worth is a search of comparable pieces on eBay or other auction websites. 

Make sure sentimental items actually are just that.

Any object that’s passed down from generation to generation can become a family heirloom. Items like jewelry, cookbooks, quilts, journals, and even musical instruments that belonged to your relatives can hold a ton of sentimental value. But not all family members are going to hold these heirlooms in the same regard, and it’s impossible to predict what the younger generations in your family will value. Only keep what has been established as holding family memories.

“You are building a legacy with your belongings, but the more selective you are about what you keep, and the more you share the stories behind the items, the more likely the recipients are going to keep it,” explains Shara.

Give your kids’ old toys a “cooling off” period. 

With so much clutter in their playrooms and closets, it can be tempting to chuck anything that your kids haven’t played with in a while. Families might regret tossing too many toys, books, and clothes too soon, though, and children can insist on holding on to toys even if they’re not actively using them. Shara offered her advice on how to minimize all the stress and heartache. 

“Place a couple of boxes of old toys out of sight, and if the kids don’t specifically ask for them after three months — or whatever time frame you’ve established — it all gets donated.” 

Bonus tip: Shara says this is a great trick for adults as well. Leave the items you’re not sure about in a garage or spare room for a designated “cooling off” period. If you find yourself missing your things, keep them. If you feel lighter living without them, toss! 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

If it’s broken, see about fixing it.

Did you know that thrift stores are so overwhelmed with donations, only a fraction of donated items end up on their sales floors? Our discarded stuff has also piled up in landfills and on beaches, and microplastics are now part of the ocean’s ecosystems. As people become more interested in sustainability, Shara encourages her clients to reconsider discarding items with small flaws. 

Look at those wardrobe pieces you are ready to ditch with a more critical eye: What can go to the tailor or the shoemaker? Would you wear that jacket again if you replaced the broken zipper? This applies to interiors, too. “We bring in the steam cleaners to shampoo upholstery and carpets,” she says. “Suddenly everything looks new again and the clients are so excited about their refreshed space.”

Take stock of what conjures the best memories. 

A “memory item” is something that doesn’t have practical value, like a pair of gently worn shoes or a small appliance, but it can’t be replaced. These can be photos, school awards, or the wedding dress you’ll never wear again. Shara advises picking one representative item from each category of personal memorabilia. Instead of holding on to all your school awards, keep the one that was most important to you.

Rather than saving all of your grandfather’s coins or hoarding your grandmother’s scarves, save the one that brings about the best memory. Boxes of old photos can be downsized if you remove the ones that are blurry or faded beyond recognition. Another great space-saver that keeps old memories alive? Bring them to a photo digitizer!